I have my doubts about Alasdair Gray tributes

Sunday National, 5th January 2020.

“Of course, it is a Scottish classic,” she gushed, holding the lukewarm pinot grigio to her lips, perched against one of the pink elephants pillared around Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre bar. “Live as if you’re working in the early days of a better nation,” her friend chipped in, gargling down a pre-theatre Malbec with one hand, while perusing the programme for familiar faces from River City the with the other. “You know, I think it is my favourite book,” the perjink first lady says. “Oh, mine too. A real Scottish classic.”

The Citizens bar seemed abuzz with this kind of conversation that night in 2015 as hundreds of middle class stereotypes gave thanks for what they were about to receive. The audience were chirruping in anticipation about the playwright David Greig’s adaptation of “the great Alasdair Gray’s first and seminal novel,” and the crowd were more than prepared to be entertained. “In the nearly 35 years since publication,” the adverts promised, “the ideas, politics and ambitions of Lanark have inspired generations of artists in Scotland and beyond.” But that September, I was interested – not in the adaptation, so much – but in the audience reaction to Lanark: A Life in Three Acts.

It seemed remarkable to me that a book as transgressive – and in many ways, as unattractive – as Lanark could have been transformed into the public imagination into some kind of couthy civic story. And yet this is precisely what a substantial part of the home crowd seemed to be anticipating in the autumn of 2015, as the actors waited in the wings and long-sighted members of the audience emptied their bladders for the first half.

A cruel definition of a “classic” is “a book people have not – but pretend to have – read.” By that reckoning, Lanark is certainly a Scottish classic. But if you’ve actually read Alasdair Gray’s first novel – the kailyard Lanark elements of the audience seemed to be anticipating is almost entirely unrecognisable. One week on from Alasdair Gray’s death, with many of the first testaments and memorials to the dead man in, it seems timely to remind ourselves of this fact. Gray has always struck me as a curiously misrepresented – and now, misremembered – figure in Scottish culture.

Greig’s stage adaptation had many merits. It was technically ambitious and like its source material – structurally interesting. The central character was sensitively acted by the talented Sandy Grierson, but ultimately, Lanark doesn’t emerge as a particularly sympathetic character. Transforming Gray’s four books into a couple of hours of theatre somehow amplified the darker and more challenging dimensions of the story and characters. You could feel the audience feeling challenged by it.

It made them forget the Art School and tenement nostalgia they bustled into the auditorium with, and sent them back out into the Gorbals – not necessarily pleasantly surprised. You heard less talk of “a Scottish classic” or “my favourite book” in the halfway hubbub between Acts and as the audience spilled out into the streets once the final curtain fell. Substantial parts of the crowd seemed uncomfortable being confronted with the unexpurgated Gray. You got the impression they expecting something rather cheerier than a story of “a man dying because he is bad at loving”, in a tale of involuntary celibacy, consuming skin diseases, consuming artistic obsessions, and femicide.

Lanark is a difficult book. I don’t mean its haphazard structure, or its splicing of 20th century Glaswegian realism with post-apocalyptic fantasy. Asthmatic, eczematic, talented, stout, intense – Gray’s protagonist is an undisguised self-portrait. If most authors produced a semi-autobiographical novel in which the semi-autobiographical central character murdered a young women in a fug of resentment and alcohol – you might be disinclined to think about the novelist as a harmless eccentric.

I say this as no moral judgement on Gray. I’m not suggesting he should be regarded as morally suspect because his avatar on the page takes life in cold blood. But how many books does a man have to write in this vein before people begin to take them seriously? How many kinky 1982 Janines do you have to publish, before people stop thinking of you as a cultural teddy bear?

There are real ironies to this. Scottish culture is shot through with hard men, and men pretending to be hard men, but because Gray – like his protagonists Thaw and Lanark – can’t conform to the stereotypes, his harder edges are blunted and overlooked. You rarely hear Gray discussed as an author with a power of things to say about Scottish masculinities, doing something more interesting with the theme than building yet another post-industrial hardman from girders. Yet that’s precisely what he was. That, for me, is Lanark’s particular achievement.

Lanark was a Scottish novel that talked about sex, about longing, about unfulfillment. I can’t think of a more precise account in Scottish literature of the psychology of the emotionally and sexually underdeveloped beta male, whose relationships are characterised by stiltedness, emotional inarticulacy, bitterness and longing all at once.

That’s why I’ve always found women who maintain Lanark is their favourite book a little bemusing. Strip away its Glaswegian setting. Strip away the powerful creative imagination and ambition of Gray’s parallel universes – and Lanark is essentially a self-pitying beta-male’s wet dream. It is a book of blistering misogyny. It is book where women are cyphers, and men with teenaged emotional intelligence fail at life. Novelists can’t be taken to endorse the worlds or characters they create – but we do violence to an artist’s work by domesticating it. We do violence to an artist’s memory by remembering them as something they’re not. In the short term, at least, this seems to be Gray’s fate.

A friend put it well this week. “The thing about Alasdair, is that he has become for many, like Yeats, ‘a public man’, and the art gets trimmed to fit.” One incidental advantage of this mismatch – as the theatre audience in Glasgow in 2015 discovered – is that the work still retains the potential to surprise, being so at odds with the vanilla, leading-the-public-tributes version of it in which this country specialises in when its great and challenging talents fall under the sod.

But because images trump words – and because too few people have actually read Gray’s words – we’re left with the powerful visual impression of the author. In your mind’s eye, how would you describe Alasdair Gray? How do you see him? A wild barble of voices, milk-saucer spectacles, eyes squinting at the world through the wrong end of a telescope, beard lichen, a bumble-bee body with a Byres Road shuffle.

Given the preoccupation of his central characters with being untouched, Gray’s physicality has appeared again and again tributes this week. His memory seems powerfully embodied. The visual impression of owlish eccentricity is all many people will be able to tell you about him – which is unfortunate because his visual effect is largely at odds with many of the themes dominating his work.

We do Gray’s work and memory a disservice if we transform him into an ornamental eccentric, a dust bunny with a funny voice and a flair for drawing. During his lifetime, I sometimes wondered what he can have made of this transformation, if it impinged on his consciousness at all. But then again – to be misremembered by strangers is perhaps all of our destinies, insofar as we are remembered at all.

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